The top public defender in Marion County said he wasn’t forced to leave the agency for any reason, though he does worry that politics could play into the naming of his successor.
Indiana Lawyer put the question to David E. Cook after reading a posting on Ruth’s Blog, a Web log devoted to news and commentary. The posting claimed that Cook was forced from his job for political reasons.
While Cook is cognizant that his position is a political one and attempts have been made in the past to further politicize the office, he said that no one forced his hand when he resigned late last year. Politics was one of many reasons for his decision, he said.
“As I’ve said before, you have to have a fire in your belly for this, and it’s not there anymore,” he said. “I wasn’t up for the political fights, the budget-setting process, the fire you need to do this work, all of that. It was time to pass the baton on to someone else.”
But Cook is concerned about politics when it comes to the person who will take charge of the office he’s led for 12 years.
“I work in a political world, but I’ve never been a political person,” he said. “Politics hasn’t mattered to me in this office. Sure, this is a political position; I’ve always known that just because of the visibility and nature of the (City-County Council) confirmations. But we haven’t played politics here.”
One of the issues he regrets not changing is how the council reconfirms the chief public defender each year. Cook hopes that’s the first task his successor takes on and something the agency’s board addresses, possibly looking at giving the public defender a term similar to what elected prosecutors have.
“If this position goes to a political hack and the agency starts going backward, it’ll be sad and distressing,” Cook said. “But it’s not my problem.”
Cook is stepping down March 15 from the agency’s top post, where he’s served since 1995. He is going to work at Indianapolis immigration firm Gresk & Singleton – something that’s been in the works since spring 2007, he said. Originally, he’d planned to leave by Feb. 15 but decided to stay longer to give the board more time to find a successor without having to name an interim director.
The attorney who chairs the Marion County Public Defender Agency’s governing board also said that politics isn’t at play in appointing someone to succeed Cook, and board members plan to fairly interview all applicants and appoint the person they believe will be the best choice.
“I think the process we have now is designed to de-politicize that,” said board chairman Jimmie McMillian, an associate with Barnes & Thornburg. “Politics are completely irrelevant in this, and we’ve always strived as a board to be non-political. We want to find the best person to fill this position. If it were up to us, Dave would be over there forever.”
McMillian emphasized that the nine-member board is committed to having an interview process free from politics. Ten attorneys applied for the position by the Feb. 1 deadline; first interviews are planned for Feb. 26 and second interviews are set for March 3. The board will determine the next step after those second interviews, McMillian said. The City-County Council must confirm the appointment.
Members plan to ask each candidate to talk about four agency-important topics during their interviews: the ability of public defenders to continue in private practice, the office’s budget priorities, training of public defenders and staff, and the screening process to make sure all indigent clients are being adequately identified.
“That sends a message of how serious we are as a board about appointing someone in a non-political way,” McMillian said. “We don’t care what political party you are but want to make sure you have good answers about these important issues.”
Former chairman Jon Bailey with law firm Bose McKinney & Evans said that any public defender needs to be able to work with everyone in the courts and City-County Building, despite any political affiliations. While federal caselaw recognizes that political affiliation may be a legitimate consideration in top policymaker positions, Bailey pointed out that any political-affiliation test used during the appointment process would be wrong.
“In the Marion County context, given the history of the board and agency, permitting a political-affiliation test would be absolutely wrong and a huge step backward,” he said.